Where does the Golf fit in VW’s great comeback?
The Golf has long been the most intellectual, well-travelled and worldly compact hatch. Despite pricing from the low 20s, the Golf is clearly a classy machine. A car for those who recoil at the idea of driving just another Corolla or Focus.
VW as a 'cognoscenti special' in the Golf was badly bruised by the dieselgate scandal. That much is clear.
But there is no TDI badge on the back of this car. The TSI emblem in back confirms this is a high-tech gasoline turbo engine.
Revisions for 2016 now bring the Golf bang up-to-date with all its infotainment: the Golf has full Apple CarPlay, AndroidAuto and even VW CarNet – a wifi hotspot solution to rival OnStar and its suite of connected services.
Beyond this touchscreen tech upgrade, the Golf 7 here in the states is still a dead ringer for pre-scandal cars.
Then again, this car was always extra classy by not caring what other drivers thought. It earned its place at the top of the car world due to its inherent greatness.
And only greatness on the road will help earn back that smart reputation in the minds of consumers.
We set off for a week in the 2016 VfaW Golf TSI SE Automatic with an open mind and an open heart. Surely, the health of VW in the USA – and the popularity of the Golf – both rise in sync with one another.
HD Drive Video
So: let’s address the elephant in the room. VW’s US sales in 2016 are badly receding, and are headlined by Golf sales that are off by more than 40-percent year-to-date versus 2015.
In that regard, the Golf is its current generation is still clearly saddled with some major baggage.
This is a shame, as the design is aging gracefully and really does look quite premium and modern in the flesh. The machined alloys are sexy with their gloss black inner spokes. This SE specification adds some chrome grille accents, foglamps with a corner lighting function to light up when you turn the wheel, and a sleek black roof.
The seamless and dark glass effect from the windshield far into the roof is quite impactful – it really looks unexpectedly upscale and chic versus the body-color standard roof. This panoramic glass moonroof also delivers big satisfaction inside the car.
But outside, this piece alone is a reminder of what VW does so well. Simple features, executed well.
We even snapped a few photos of the Golf SE with its moonroof slid open – above the roof! – with the glass acting as a spoiler to our eyes.
Other places VW brings its premium-brand goodies to the mainstream? A matrix antenna built into the rear glass removes any tacky aerial antenna, while the backup camera popping out from behind the tail’s VW emblem is still special. The light tint to the back windows is chic and helps reinforce the Golf silhouette nicely. We also admire LED blinker repeaters in the side mirrors. This is still a fairly rare, yet real-world-helpful feature.
Similarly, the panel gaps all around seem industry-leading in their tightness. Better than a gap, places where the bumpers meet the steel bodywork are actually nearly flush.
The overall result?
Clean, simple and premium feelings when viewing the Golf from any angle. This is a car that makes up for its lack of flashy design with a pure, timeless appeal.
(The paint, it must be noted, has some odd reflections where the rear bumper and gascap contrast with the metal ever-so-slightly.)
The Golf 7 is indeed clean and mature all around.
A bit more design ‘flash’ would be welcome in some places, mind you! We sorely missed the adaptive bi-xenons and LED daytime running lights that help the GTI look so cool and mean in the fastlane. These are available as a $995 option on the Golf SE – and we highly recommend it.
The halogen reflector lamps just lack the visual cache of LEDs and xenons. They are also a bit weak in terms of actually lighting the road ahead, too.
If the exterior of this Tungsten Metallic Golf SE is mature and clean – to a fault, almost – then the cabin and drive experience are where it must really outpunch its weight.
For years, Golf cabins have felt like they came from another world versus Civic and Focus rivals. A quitter, better built and more refined world!
That is still the case with many rivals to the Golf, like the new Chevy Cruze 5-door and yes, the Ford Focus. But where nearly every touchpoint in the Golf used to exude quality… the 2016 model seems far less special.
Yes, the V-tex leatherette and heated seats are lovely and do a fine impression of leather. And yes, the steering wheel with its ultra-soft, genine leather wrap is a delight to hold. Same for the gloss black wheel spokes and steering-wheel controls for the MID-cluster screen, cruise, audio and phone integration. We also admire the metallic silver of the push-button start button and the no need to blip the keyfob: the Golf has touch unlock/lock functionality for all its doors as long as the key is in your pocket.
Simple things for a premium car driver… but another world above the Corolla and most other cars with a $20k base price.
But in terms of finding really shockingly upscale details? The vaunted soft-close roof grab handles are intact. As are the rubberized knobs and solid, high-quality feel to all the VW’s buttons. What really brought a smile? A most unlikely, and very nerdy, thing: the airvent controls. Versus the normal plastic slider knobs in even some luxury cars, the Golf’s are a thing of beauty. They are so tactile … and snick satisfyingly into their lock or unlocked position in the best German-quality way.
Same could be said for the auto-down and auto-up windows all around. The car is certainly packed with features, though. And almost all standard on this SE spec, including automatic wipers and headlights. Detail things, perhaps, but important to the value equation nonetheless.
Surprisingly upscale at this cost.
But are the airvents and auto-up back windows really enough to buy a car over?
We were unconvinced that the Golf is like it was – a 3X improvement and upgrade versus most compacts in overall perceived quality.
Luckily, the drive position is still amazing and the seats themselves are very comfortable AND supportive. The Golf started winning back our love on throttle.
The Golf drives like a champ. It has amazing roadholding, grip and steering feel around fast corners. You feel immensely planted in the car, and sense its limits are far above what normal driving will require.
The car starts up with near zero vibration or harshness from up front – the TDI ultra-insulation strategy is paying dividends here, especially now that the oil-burner engine is swapped for this peppy 1.8T.
The engine is a gem and feels like its 170 ponies are strong, fit and ready to run. 170HP is delivered on premium fuel, but the car is a happy camper on regular, too.
A bonus for those who prefer automatics? The six-speed Aisin unit in the Golf SE (which is standard with an autobox) gets blessed with an extra 15 pound-feet of torque. 199 plays 184 in the stickshift Golf S, and helps the auto to be one of the quickest cars in its segment.
An estimated sprint time to 60-mph in the 7.5-second ballpark is instantly much quicker than most rivals. Mazda3, Corolla, Cruze, Civic, Elantra and Sentra are all at least a second behind. In some cases, nearly three seconds back.
Bottom line? The Golf SE TSI feels very quick versus its rivals.
The turbo powertrain is standard on the car in the US market, where the eGolf also lives from $29k.
The 2016 Golf range here in the states is very deep for the 2016 model year. Five trims of four-door and even a few two-door Golfs available. The SE slides under the SEL as one of the top models, and stickers from $25,225. $26,045 out the door with delivery for our test car. This price feels pretty fair.
But you may be able to score a much better deal... and at $20k, the Golf SE suddenly becomes quite compelling.
For the 2017 model year in the USA, the range appears trimmed to a pair of four-doors: the S and the Autobahn. Presumably to chase the budget and lux shoppers with two different packages.
The Golf 8's world debut is only a few days away as we write up this review. It is an exciting moment when a new Golf comes, as it is fairly rare. Those times can make you realize that: as much as things change, they often stay the same.
We're huge fans of VW, and know the brand will reclaim its posh image soon enough. Intellectuals may take time to return to VW's orbit. But we have a new demographic idea.
Readers of the newspaper, of course, but also those who love Value.
Shop the Golf now to surf against the grain. Right now, the Golf is an undervalued investment opportunity. Get a car that costs $35k around the world.. for at least $10k less.